It was wonderful–and just a little unfamiliar–to be back in person with so many friends and colleagues at the annual EDUCAUSE ELI conference in San Diego in June 2022. The first in-person ELI since spring of 2019, the gathering still felt large enough to encounter new ideas while maintaining the close-knit, community-oriented vibe of previous ELI conferences. Threaded across sessions were topics related to transformative leadership, empathy and well-being, and planning for the future–fitting for the conference theme, A Moment to Breathe: Reflect and Gear Up for What’s Next.
Transforming Leadership, Prioritizing Well-Being
Throughout the pandemic – perhaps more than at any other time in recent history – institutional leaders were compelled to embody the leadership principles most central to their own identity and values. While this created opportunities for growth, it also pushed highly engaged leaders to physical and psychological limits, and prompted many to engage deeply with empathy and well-being.
Embracing challenges and identifying opportunities for critical self-evaluation helped existing leaders embrace change. Sherri Braxton, Liv Gjestvang, Brad Cohen, and Julian Allen’s session on “Leading Change by Changing Your Leadership” provided space in which each presenter shared personal experiences, including obstacles encountered over the past few years, and shared strategies they used to create positive change for themselves and those around them.
Allan Gyorke and Hannah Inzko embraced the EDUCAUSE 2022 Top 10 IT Issues topic of “radical creativity” and encouraged fun and self-knowledge to advance leadership abilities. In “We Don’t Talk about Bruno: Lessons for Technology Leadership and Mental Health,” Gyorke and Inzko leveraged the fun and accessibility of a Disney film together with a personality assessment to help participants identify their innate gifts as well as how to appreciate those gifts in others.
Flower Darby’s general session “Wired for Connection: Promoting Our Collective Well-Being and Success” emphasized the significance of feelings of belonging and outlined strategies to improve feelings of connectedness, particularly for students. One of the most impactful messages was about self-care: What can we stop doing to support our own mental health and wellness as well as that of our colleagues? This can also provide capacity to focus more energy and effort on our top priorities. While this type of prioritization – and letting go of processes, responsibilities, and solutions – can be difficult, Cathy Bates’s The 25% Plan is a great place to start.
Planning for the Future
Many ELI sessions embraced the conference theme, highlighting lessons learned while turning a thoughtful and strategic focus toward the future.
EDUCAUSE Strategic Plan
Helen Norris, John O’Brien, and Nicole McWhirter facilitated a conversation on the status and planning for the next organizational strategic plan in a Town Hall: Looking to the Future with the EDUCAUSE Strategic Plan. Much of the conversation centered around the role of educational technologies and, by extension, ELI, in the broader context of higher education IT. Many folks, too, expressed interest in more explicit and sustained focus on topics related to diversity, equity, inclusion, and access, and ways that EDUCAUSE might advocate or lead in this space.
Inclusive Design and Practice
Diversity, equity, and inclusion are now central topics in many conversations surrounding pedagogy, faculty development, teaching and learning, and educational technology. As a result, tools and methods to evaluate accessibility and inclusion – particularly those that nudge toward improving design and practice – are increasingly useful.
In the Designing Inclusive Learning Spaces workshop, Adam Finkelstein and Crystal Ramsay introduced new components of the EDUCAUSE Learning Space Rating System (LSRS) and guided participants through a series of brainstorming exercises to identify “easy wins” and outstanding questions and challenges surrounding the design of inclusive learning spaces. Not surprisingly, the group felt more comfortable with designing for physical access and inclusion (though we acknowledged that challenges remain!) than designing for cognitive and/or cultural inclusion. With the newest version of the LSRS incorporating components of all campuses – even those with significant recent investments in learning space upgrades and previous “high scores” on the LSRS – can identify areas for improvement.
Shannon Dowling provided a planner’s perspective on diverse, equitable, and inclusive spaces for higher education in Planning and Designing Diverse, Equitable, and Inclusive Campus Learning Environments. Drawing from her personal knowledge and experience as well as research conducted during her Society for College and University Planning Fellowship, Shannon highlighted student voices and the importance of understanding – rather than assuming – nuances and complexities of the student experience. She summarized her research findings in a framework for use on higher ed campuses, and has generously made her Playbook for the Planning and Design of DEI Campus Environments available online.
Physical AND Digital Futures
Conversation in both Finkelstein and Ramsay’s inclusive learning spaces workshop and in Dowling’s inclusive learning environments session included considerations of what “learning space” means now: formal learning environments like physical classrooms and labs, informal learning environments like study areas and libraries, and hybrid learning environments that blend the physical and digital worlds. This hybrid definition includes both synchronous engagement (students who may be in different places attending the same classes or study sessions at the same time) as well as asynchronous engagement (students who may be in the same or different places engaging with the same content at different times). Increasingly, students want a reason to be physically present in class beyond the threat of a lowered attendance grade; simultaneously, many students still want a residential college or university experience.
One unique approach to this set of challenges was highlighted in Muhsinah Morris’s general session Educational Transformation and Restoration Powered by Virtual Reality, in which she described using virtual reality (VR) to blend physical and digital space at Morehouse College. This approach has the potential to enhance engagement, equity, and learning outcomes, and Morris highlighted stories of students whose academic performance had improved while also enhancing student satisfaction.
Each of these themes addresses change.
And, as often happens after attending a great conference, I left filled with new ideas, and just as many questions:
As we continue to wrestle with and reconcile what we learned from the pandemic and our institutional responses – including where we currently find ourselves – how can we sustain momentum and enthusiasm for the best of those responses? How can we carry forward the collaboration, shared vision, and coordinated efforts that seemed so difficult prior to the pandemic? How can we keep ourselves from retreating into silos, reverting to past habits, or returning to our previous processes and services without first evaluating whether these best serve our clients, customers, constituents, and stakeholders? Higher education institutions have a reputation for embracing a pace of change that is glacial, and while that is sometimes appropriate, our students and faculty know now that there are other ways of operating. How can we leverage this moment of change to transform our institutions and organizations to create more inclusive spaces and equitable opportunities?
It was inspiring to be surrounded by colleagues who are dedicated to supporting our institutions–and one another–as we embrace change. I look forward to learning more, engaging with the community, and maintaining the momentum for transformation at the EDUCAUSE 2022 Annual Conference in Denver this October. In the meantime, I welcome comments and ideas for how we can sustain change and transformation in higher ed–let’s keep this important conversation going!
This post was authored by Vantage Strategic Consultant Shannon Dunn, who advises clients on governance, strategy, and educational technology initiatives. Shannon has nearly 15 years of professional experience in higher education and over a decade leading complex projects and program development across public, government, and private sectors. She brings a deep understanding of strategic planning and visioning in higher education technology and connects communication, inclusivity, and collaboration to cultivate diverse stakeholder engagement and community building.